Discover balut, the infamous Filipino delicacy.
They call it balut, but it’s probably not something that really deserves a name of it’s own. It’s just an egg — a duck egg — and that’s what is perhaps so gut wrenching about it.
Birds come from eggs, and when you crack open a balut this fact of nature is never driven home more vividly. You break open the top of the shell, peel back a few pieces, look inside, and there it is: a dead duck fetus.
That’s the food part.
You sprinkle on a little salt, pour in a little vinegar, lift it up to your mouth, and drink the embryonic soup right from the egg. Then you peel away the rest of the shell and eat the entire balled-up and mucusy unborn baby duck in one gulp. Mush. Gush. Crunch.
Balut is a common snack in the Philippines. This isn’t a “traditional” snack like scorpion in China, which pretty much amounts to a tourist novelty and isn’t something most people really eat — but a snack like potato chips. You can see people eating balut in the streets, often. Men eat them while drinking — they’re thought to be an aphrodisiac. A walk through a Filipino city is to see vendors with baskets of balut, people buying them by the bagful; it is to see people gulping down the goopy little baby bird balls. They are even sold in 7-Eleven convenience stores, being warmed throughout the day by a steady flow of steam. It’s a normal thing here, and it seems to be one of the country’s most popular foods.
Producing balut does not seem to be a very complicated affair. The eggs are fertilized and allowed to gestate for exactly 17 days — anymore and they’ll hatch. Then they are boiled. After this, they are ready to eat.
It is said that the habit of eating balut came to the Philippines from China. There are many similar culinary practices in China that include the use of uber-fertilized chicken and duck eggs. One of the most popular is dumping an almost-ready-to-hatch bird embryo out onto a wok and frying it up. The Chinese names for this food perhaps say it all: 毛蛋 = Feathered egg, 末蛋 = Late stage egg. Though it seems as if this is something that many cultures probably stumbled upon independently: balut is just a duck egg at an advanced stage of development that’s been boiled. It’s not something that required any degree of ingenious innovation.
Though overtly common, Balut isn’t a white rice kind of thing that nobody has any reason to ever talk about in the Philippines. No, the Filippinos seem very aware that this culinary habit may be a little bestial. They know that outsiders usually find it
a little exceedingly disgusting. So much so that they seem to really get a kick out of taunting foreigners with it.
“You want to try?” the driver for the Townhouse hotel in Manila asked me as he held up two eggs with a big smile on his face.
Of course I didn’t want to, but I thought about it for a moment anyway.
“Do you know what it is?” the driver taunted. “It’s not a normal egg.”
“Yeah, I know what it is. It’s balut.”
He then held one of the eggs up to the light to show me the little chick on the inside.
I’ve never really had the tourist inclination to go out and eat what my culture would regard as strange foods when abroad for the novelty of it. Sure, I sometimes eat ants in Colombia, crickets in Mexico, grasshoppers in Thailand, and fried duck’s tongue in China, but I do so because they taste good, not to put an exclamation point on a vacation to somewhere. Nothing in my experience told me that sucking a mucusy, feather-budding late stage embryo straight from a shell could potentially taste good. But there is a value in life to being able to say, “Yeah, I did that.”
I considered the offer.
Though, perhaps luckily, I lost my place at the feeding trough. Some German guy strode into the room and laid claim to my balut. The Filipino workers who appeared to live on the benches and chairs in the common room of the hostel gathered around the German. Apparently, giving foreigners balut and watching their reaction is a playful intrigue for the people here.
Apol Danganan, Vagabond Journey’s former Philippines correspondent, began her article on balut like this:
They gagged, they choked, they puked. Many foreigners, businessmen and travelers alike have defied squeamishness and bravely tried to eat balut, only to fail and prove themselves not as adventurous as they thought themselves to be. Many foreigners have failed to conquer this notorious delicacy of the Philippines in their attempt to immerse themselves deeper into Filipino culture. I can’t blame non-Filipinos if they throw up once they feel the crunchy beak and the hair of the tiny, pitiful dead duckling in their mouth.
The German did well. He popped open the top of the shell and sprinkled on some salt. He declined adding the customary vinegar, which the Filipinos were alright with. But what they couldn’t accept was the German dumping out the embryonic fluid. They said it was the best part and that he was supposed to drink it right from the shell. He said no way, and proceeded to peel the shell off of the tightly balled up baby bird within.
I looked closely at it as a Filipino lady pointed out its various parts, as though it was an anatomical chart. “That’s the head. Can you see it? Look, look, that is the eye.” The little bird was wound up tightly around its yellow yoke sack. It’s head was bent down into the bosom of its body, its wings and legs were likewise smushed in, forming perfectly to the contours of the shell like a new thing of silly putty. Its black feathers had already budded. They were soaked wet from egg stuff. There was what appeared to have been an umbilical cord . . .
The German lifted the balut up to his mouth.
“You have to eat all of it at one time,” a Filipino spectator admonished.
“How?” asked the German. “It won’t fit.”
“You have to.”
One should not just take a bite of balut. My stomached twisted when I thought of someone taking a chomp out of the rolled up little bird and leaving the rest hovering outside for everyone to see the teeth-marked cross section.
As Apol put it:
“Eating it whole is less gross because you’ll not feel the duckling in your mouth so much as you chew it with the yolk and you’ll not see what’s left of the duckling as you would if you eat it bit by bit.”
The German complied. He popped it into his mouth, chewed a couple of times, then swallowed. He groaned a little, then celebrated.
“It’s just the beak, that’s the hardest part,” he said.
The Filipino take:
“I like to feel it just melt in my mouth after eating it whole . . .”
If you haven’t already, be sure to read Apol Danganan’s article about balut.
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